Merciful Punishment: Reflections on the Good Judge

It’s sad but true. To the average person, even the average Christian, YHWH of the Old Testament and Theos of the New seem to be two completely different persons. Most associate the God of the OT with rules and regulations who dished out wrath and punishment if disobeyed. Meanwhile, they view the God of the NT as a God of love and forgiveness who tosses grace and mercy like candy flung from a float in the Independence Day Parade.

I will grant that God’s dealings with humans seems to be a bit more direct and immediate in the days of Moses and Elijah. But is His character really that different? Some of His punishments do seem a bit harsh, but is there more to them than just the surface level understanding?

The teacher of the adult class on Sunday morning briefly mentioned the infamous Bathsheba incident. David rapes and impregnates the wife of his friend and officer. To cover it up, he has him sent to the front lines and killed, thus freeing himself to take Bathsheba as his own wife. Adultery, murder, lies–doesn’t he know the Big 10?

Anyway, God calls David out through Nathan the prophet. Caught red handed. Nowhere to run; nowhere to hide. David said it himself that he deserves to die. So God strikes him dead then and there.

Wait…no he doesn’t. The punishment is carried out on the child. This is enough to get most people stirring in their seats. Is God really a baby killer? Egyptians, sure. King Herod, of course. But God?

This bothered me. It still bothers me. But God is God and I am not. His ways are higher than my ways.

Let’s take a deeper look into this punishment. Is there any mercy in it?

Yes.

If God had killed David instead of the baby:

  • Israel would be without a leader. Division would run rampant and would certainly tear the country to pieces. That happens later, but Israel wouldn’t come close to the golden era of Solomon.
  • Bathsheba would be a widowed single mother. She would have nothing. Begging or prostitution would likely be her only options to support herself and her child.
  • The child would have grown up with the label of the king’s bastard child and the son of a whore. Any hope of having a normal childhood and making any sort of living for himself would be a long shot to say the least.
But God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to spare David’s life and take the child. So the baby got to go directly to heaven (I believe baby’s are innocent, so when they die, their souls are automatically taken to be with God). Bathsheba became a queen instead of a widow. The nation of Israel continued thrive under their greatest king to date. Bathsheba gave David even more sons, one of whom became heir to the throne and ushered in Israel’s golden age.
Okay, so this is one example in which God’s punishment is also infused with mercy. But there are many, many more.
  • God could have struck Adam and Eve dead on the spot and started all over. But He killed animals in their place to make proper clothing to cover their shame and nakedness. They still lived a long life outside of the garden, started a family, and still remained close to God.
  • Cain killed his brother in cold blood. Rather than taking a life for a life, God put a mark on Cain and sent him away. But further reading reveals that Cain eventually got married, started a family, and established his own city.
  • When Israel began its conquest into the promised land, God was essentially using them as a tool for carrying out His punishment against the Canaanites. Yet if the land’s inhabitants would simply believe in the power of YHWH and repent, God was more than willing to spare their lives. Hence, Rahab and her family were the only Jericho survivors.
God is called the righteous judge because His sentences, His punishments, are naturally infused with mercy. Next time you read through the Law and the Prophets, look for the mercy within the narratives of wrath and punishment. You’ll be surprised by what you find.

Salt, part 1

I’ve taken a hiatus from writing as I have been focusing on being a dad. It’s been about 5 months, and now I feel like putting my thoughts out there in the blogoshpere once again. So here we go…
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Elijah’s story runs throughout the 2nd half of 1 Kings. He is one of the first major prophets since the time of Samuel. He is even thought of as the prophet in the line of Moses that was promised back in Deuteronomy. But I don’t want to talk about Elijah right now. I want to talk about Elijah’s protege, apprentice, and successor – Elisha.

Elisha’s name literally means “God saves”. And just as Elijah was a type of Moses, so Elisha is a type of Joshua (whose name means “YHWH saves”). Elijah’s time on the earth has come to an end by 2 Kings 2, and he takes Elisha on a journey outside the land of Israel across the Jordan which is parted before them so they may walk across on dry ground. Elijah is then taken up into heaven in a fire tornado, leaving Elisha all alone to carry out the work of God.

Elisha, just like Joshua before him, crosses the Jordan on dry ground as he enters the land. The first city he comes to is Jericho, which was conquered and cursed by Joshua. If anyone were to rebuild the walls of Jericho, he would bring a curse upon himself and the land. But as we all know, it was impossible for the Israelites to leave well enough alone, so they rebuilt the city and its walls several centuries later. And, surprise!, the ground and the water were cursed because of their disobedience.

So along comes Elisha, God’s newly established frontman. The people know that God is with him, so they come out to him begging for his help. They say the water is cursed, and it’s causing death and miscarriages and crop failure. In today’s world, we would be digging up pipes, running all kinds of tests, shipping in bottled water, and doing everything within our power to fix whatever was making our water bad. But Elisha didn’t do that.

And it wasn’t lead, or pesticide, or any other toxic waste. It was the curse they brought on themselves by disobeying God’s commands. Elisha could have simply rubbed it in their faces that they deserved what they got. They were under God’s curse. He could have left it at that and moved on. But Elisha didn’t do that either.

He got a bowl, placed some salt in that bowl, and threw the salt into the water. To this day, the text tells us, the water was cleansed, and it no longer caused death or miscarriage or famine.

Elisha reversed the curse. Not bad for an inaugural act as head prophet.